7 Curators Using Instagram to Provide Access to Museums during Quarantine

Claire Voon
Jun 12, 2020 4:09PM

Instagram has always been an accessible way to armchair travel. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the platform has offered a view of now-shuttered cultural institutions. While museum accounts can be promotional and distant in tone, curators’ feeds offer personal and specialized perspectives. Many curators regularly share artworks related to their own research—often pieces that aren’t displayed in prominent positions in galleries. On curators’ feeds, these objects get their spotlight. We spoke with seven curators about how they are using their virtual platforms to provide access to art, beyond institutional walls.

Rachel Parikh

Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art, Worcester Art Museum

Every image on Rachel Parikh’s feed demands to be seen up close. The curator posts stunning photographs of arms and armor that have historically received little attention. Ornate blades from India, Iran, and Turkey are featured alongside other metalworks, such as ox-headed maces, turban-inspired helmets, and a horse bridle that exemplifies the craftsmanship of Tibetan ironwork. Parikh contextualizes the objects with compelling captions that detail their purposes: They’ve been used as protective gear, ceremonial items, and religious relics. “As one of the few specialists of South Asian arms and armor, I feel that these objects are underexposed and deserve to be appreciated, admired, and understood,” Parikh said. “Additionally, we often associate arms and armor with the battlefield and with violence, but they were so much more than instruments of war. I want to show just how multifaceted these materials are, and that they are an important part of art history.”

Melinda Watt, who joined the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018, offers glimpses of the institution’s renowned global textile collection. A quick scroll through her feed reveals patterns from a 20th-century kimono, 18th-century Persian garments, and exquisite 18th-century needle lace. In recent weeks, Watt has shared previews from her first and now-postponed exhibition at the Art Institute, “Fabricating Fashion: Textiles for Dress, 1700–1825,” which focuses on historical Western European garments. Watt augments her posts with pictures of other treasures from around the world, including the late Francisco Toledo’s Gusanos (2013): a mesmerizing piece of wool felt embellished with wiggling fabric worms. “It’s simultaneously witty, creepy, and beautiful,” she said.

In addition to posting about Blackness and structural injustices at museums and beyond, Kelli Morgan often uses video to educate her followers on African American art: She films herself discussing works by artists including Elizabeth Catlett, Edmonia Lewis, and the late Emma Amos. The segments—all under 10 minutes long—are casual and accessible, as are her musings on critical race theory and texts. They are terrific resources on the lives and legacies of must-know artists, which place these figures within broader art-historical discourses. “African Diasporic art has become extremely popular in the last 10 years through the visibility of Black contemporary artists,” Morgan said. “However, the very rich history of African American visual culture is much less known, and I wanted to use social media, particularly Instagram, as a tool to change that.”

Since late March, Rosario Güiraldes has been sharing one drawing a day as a way to create a new routine for herself. She works on a post after waking up, when she has yet to be exposed to the day’s information influx. Drawings that skip across time and place—by artists including Bill Traylor, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Cici Wu—are at times accompanied by personal reflections and anecdotes. Güiraldes decided to share these works after an epiphany that drawing tends to flourish during times of uncertainty. “I realized that the attributes by which drawing has historically been considered less important are what make it so vital during moments of crisis,” she said. “Its beauty lies in its democracy, modesty, precariousness, accessibility, universality; it is an activity that any person anywhere in the world can do with whatever materials they have at hand.”

Siddhartha Shah

Curator of Indian and South Asian Art, Peabody Essex Museum

As the COVID-19 crisis became more severe in America, Siddhartha Shah began feeling uneasy with all the positive and beautiful images that flooded his feed. “I felt like there was a kind of bypassing going on—not acknowledging the trauma that we are going through, and not addressing the challenges of loneliness that many of us are having to confront head on…with no preparation and with more anxieties and stresses than usual,” he said. Drawing largely from the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection of modern Indian art, the curator began sharing images—often portraits—that evoke solitude. These have included Gieve Patel’s quiet scene of a woman waiting and Jogen Chowdhury’s painting of a couple, which reminded Shah of the sanctity of touch. “I think it can be healing to see our own experiences—positive and less positive—reflected back at us in art,” he said.

Suheyla Takesh’s feed focuses on modernist art from the Arab world. Collectively, the works celebrate the region’s artistic complexities; they dismantle any notion that art by Arab artists can be treated as a monolith. Pre-pandemic, the curator posted behind-the-scenes views of exhibition-making and details of artworks. Lately, she’s continued to share works that fascinate and excite her—creating “a visual diary of sorts,” she said—such as Kadhim Hayder’s painting of loquacious white horses (Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing, 1965) and Menhat Helmy’s resonant scene of patients in an outdoor clinic in Egypt.

Stephanie Herdrich

Assistant Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From an exquisitely peeled orange in a Dutch still life to the embellished sleeve in a Renaissance portrait, arresting details fill Stephanie Herdrich’s feed, all celebrating the artist’s hand. Each of her posts features a photograph of an artwork Herdrich has seen in person, in renowned collections from around the world—from Mauritshuis to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and, of course, the Met. Since March, the curator has revisited her archive and posted snapshots that offer viewers a moment of joy and comfort. “This seems even more important to me now as we’re sheltered apart from each other, and our access to art and community is limited to virtual spaces,” she said. “In a small and simple way, sharing these images with people who enjoy them connects us.”

Claire Voon